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UNC's standing by its race-conscious admissions policies despite a lawsuit

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Photo by Alex Kormann

The Students for Fair Admissions’ lawsuit against UNC and its race-conscious admission policies entered the next phase of legal proceedings after a hearing last Thursday.

UNC is one of three defendants in a series of lawsuits from the SFFA, the others being Harvard University and University of Texas at Austin. Edward Blum, the president of SFFA, said in a recent report that he believes the lawsuit against UT-Austin will also be resolved soon.

SFFA characterizes itself as a nonprofit membership group of more than 20,000 students, parents and others who believe that race-conscious admission policies are unfair, unnecessary and unconstitutional.

Chancellor Carol Folt and Vice Chancellor Robert Blouin sent a formal email notice to the University community, announcing the new phase of the lawsuit and explaining how they expect the plaintiff to attack admission methods and mischaracterize the community values.

“Students, faculty and business leaders who hire hundreds of our graduates each year agree the strength of a Carolina education lies in the diversity of experiences among our student body,” the email said.

Julie Park, a professor at University of Maryland at College Park and an expert witness for Harvard in its defense against SFFA, said she thinks removing affirmative action admission practices would be detrimental to students and institutions across the country. 

UNC set up a website defending its admissions practices and outlining the case.

“A private group threatens Carolina’s academic excellence, and challenges our ability to create a diverse community of talented students from varied backgrounds and different perspectives,” the website states.

UNC's defense includes evidence that asserts its admission practices are completely consistent with the letter and spirit of the law, especially with that of Fisher v. University of Texas, a 2013 Supreme Court case that upheld the use of race and ethnicity in university admissions as constitutional.

The website also includes a research document on race-neutral alternatives. The document gives evidence from other states, including California and Michigan, that show race-neutral policies lead to a decline in minority student admissions. It also argues that increases in minority admissions largely come from growing minority populations in the population as a whole. 

The document also details various states' decisions to ban race-conscious admission policies, like those of California and Michigan.

California’s Proposition 209 removed affirmative action from its university system’s admissions processes in 1996, along with race-conscious policies from state agencies. In 2011, first-year admission rates for Black California residents were 46 percent lower than they were in 1995 at the University of California-Berkeley and the University of California-Los Angeles.

UC-Berkeley saw a negative 23 percent change in Black student admissions and a negative 5 percent change in Hispanic student admissions from 1999 to 2006. UCLA saw a negative 44 percent change in Black student admissions in the same time period.

Two percent of UC-Berkley students are Black, according to the U.S. Department of Education College Scorecard's latest data.

Michigan’s 2006 Proposal 02 also removed race-conscious policies from its admission processes in 2006 by amending the state's constitution. Challenges to the amendment made their way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2014, where the Court upheld the legality of the amendment in a 6-to-2 decision.

Park said research into race-conscious admission policies affirms the need for the policies to exist. She said removing affirmative action policies could cause a chilling effect in minority student admissions, citing both the California and Michigan examples, and could decrease minority students' sense of belonging.

Park said the racial and economic divisions in the country make it difficult to build racially diverse campuses. She believes diversity on college campuses benefits students by giving them a holistic education with various perspectives.

She also said that, because race-conscious admission policies help increase the opportunities available for minorities, invalidating these policies could lead to minorities losing the opportunity to reach leadership roles in society.

“Diversity is essential to a quality education,” she said.

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